The novel is divided into four Parts: Wave, Argil and Mold, Plant and Phantom, and Wake. Within these parts are Chorus sections, consisting of play-like dialogue between characters, as well as Time Machine sections, which give brief histories and flashbacks of individual characters’ lives. The story takes place on Anopopei, a fictional island somewhere in the South Pacific. American forces are faced with a campaign to drive out the Japanese so that Americans can advance into the Philippines. The novel itself focuses on the experiences of one platoon.Part One, Wave
Characters are introduced as they wait around for orders. A naval bombardment takes place. The men take their places on a boat and are driven to the invasion shore. Here they fire back and forth at the Japanese. Hennessey becomes so frightened that he soils in his pants. Overcome by panic, he runs out of his foxhole and is killed by a grenade. Part One concludes with this death, which alarms many of the men, since for many soldiers Hennessey’s death is the first comrade death they witness.Part Two, Argil and Mold
The campaign continues. General Cummings has a soft spot for Lieutenant Hearn, the only officer he can relate to intellectually; they have many discussions together. At one point, the platoon takes a Japanese soldier as prisoner. When Gallagher gives the Japanese soldier a cigarette to smoke, the soldier closes his eyes in relaxation. At this moment, Croft shoots and kills him, demonstrating his coldblooded personality. Later, Gallagher receives word that his wife, Mary, died in childbirth. Although Gallagher’s child survived, he is overcome by immense grief throughout the rest of the novel.Part Three, Plant and Phantom
Hearn is assigned by Cummings to lead the platoon through the jungle and up Mountain Anaka to find a way to the rear of the enemy. After a clash with Japanese, Wilson is shot and left behind. Croft sends men back to get Wilson. Brown, Stanley, Goldstein, and Ridges then carry Wilson back to the beach on a stretcher. The trip takes several days, and Wilson ends up dying. The men eventually lose Wilson’s body in a river.
Croft manipulates Hearn into walking in an ambush, and Hearn is killed, leaving Croft in charge. The men continue hiking up the mountain due to Croft’s orders, even though many men view it as a hopeless cause. Later, Roth dies while attempting to make a jump on the mountain’s edge. Trudging on, the men eventually give up their task in climbing the mountain. They return to the beach where Brown, Stanley, Goldstein, and Ridges have arrived from their mission with Wilson. Back from their mission, they learn that the battle for the island is almost won. Surprisingly, the ruthless Croft seems to be relieved that he was unable to climb the mountain. At the end of Part Three, the remaining men discuss their future and how it will feel when they return home now that their mission is over.Part Four, Wake
This part consists of one short chapter. Cummings reflects on the war. He is rather disappointed that the victory was too easy (it came as a result of exhaustion of Japanese troops), and that he cannot take the credit, as Major Dalleson, who acted as his deputy for a day, won the battle just by obeying established procedures. Major Dalleson then wonders about the new training program that will take place with new troops the next day.Hennessey is a newer member of the platoon. Out of fear, he defecates in his pants during the opening action scene. He has a mental break down and runs down the beach in hopes of getting new pants. He is killed by shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell.
Woodrow Wilson is a large, impoverished white Southerner. He has a happy-go-lucky and generous nature. At home, Wilson wakes up married to a woman named Alice after a drunken night at the bar. Their marriage consists of love affairs and money troubles. Later, Wilson suffers a long, agonizing death after being shot in the stomach by the Japanese.
Julio Martinez is a Mexican-American. Nicknamed Japbait by Croft, Martinez gains bravery through battle and is an excellent soldier. Throughout the novel, he is on edge and introverted. Croft convinces Martinez to lie about a Japanese platoon he saw on a solo scouting mission, which leads to the death of Hearn and to the men hiking to Mount Anaka under Croft's command.
Sam Croft has a large ego and is coldblooded throughout the novel. At one point, he immorally kills a Japanese POW. Later, he squeezes Roth’s baby bird to death as if he is crushing all innocence. He loves killing and is Mailer’s version of a psychopath within the novel. At the conclusion of the book, Croft refuses to look forward to his homecoming, believing that the war will continue for much longer. After all, he enjoys the war because he finds a thrill in killing.
Red Valsen claims he does not want to rise in the ranks. He appears numb to death and the war itself. As a child, he grew up in a mine town in Montana. Later, he runs away from home, losing contact with his entire family. After holding many jobs, Red moves in with his girlfriend Lois and her son. Afraid of commitment, Red joins the Army and runs away from Lois. While in the Army, Red loses contact with Lois just like he did with his own family.
Lieutenant Robert Hearn is the stereotypical white liberal. Harvard educated and from an affluent family, Hearn is General Cummings’ assistant. He despises the caste system within the Army, wishing that he could reach out to the lower class foot soldiers. Later, Cummings transfers Hearn to Dalleson’s section. He leads the platoon through the jungle and to the mountain pass. Here he is shot and killed quickly and anticlimactically not expecting Japanese resistance after Croft keeps the information from him.
General Edward Cummings is power-hungry, often comparing himself to God. As a child, Cummings experiences gender-role confusion. This forces his father to send him to military school. Later, Cummings attends West Point. While at West Point, he meets Margaret and feels socially pressured into marrying her. Margaret and Cummings are married and never have children. They have an unhappy marriage, perhaps due to Cummings homosexual tendencies and feelings. It is apparent through his conversations with Hearn that he possesses romantic feelings for him.
Roy Gallagher is Boston Irish and part of an Anti-Semitic gang called Christians United. He always seems angry throughout the novel. Later, he learns that his wife Mary has died in childbirth. While the child has survived, Gallagher remains devastated for the rest of the novel.
Roth is a depressing, fickle stereotypical Jew. Throughout the novel, he has a superiority complex because he is better educated than the other men of the platoon. Roth dies while climbing the mountain because he misses a jump and fails to grasp Gallagher’s hand.
Joey Goldstein is also Jewish like Roth. However, unlike Roth, he does not view himself as better than his Christian friends. Goldstein grows up as a mamma’s boy and desires to own his own shop. Later, he becomes a welder and marries Natalie, despite his mother’s disapproval. After their son is born, Goldstein struggles to support his family and maintain a loving relationship with his wife. Throughout the war, Goldstein is well-respected by his comrades, although he does lack courage at times.
William Brown is the stereotypical well-liked, neighborhood boy. Growing up in a middle-class family, Brown later attends a state university. Here he joins a fraternity and flunks out by freshman year. He marries a girl from his high school, Beverly, and lives a fairly boring life. Throughout the war, he worries that Beverly will cheat on him while he’s away. He is certain that he will throw her out of the house when he returns home.
Stanley insists that women are no different from men. He trusts his wife Ruthie, who is the mother of his child. In some ways, he is the quiet feminist within the novel. He is also more ambitious than the other soldiers, since he is unexperienced in war.
Toglio is an Italian-American. Patriotic, trusting, and good-natured, he is friends with most of his platoon. He sustains a million-dollar wound during combat and is sent home. Subsequently, as time passes, some characters come to envy his wound and grow to hate him.
Czienwicz Polack comes from a lower-class Polish family. He grows up with seven siblings and, after his father dies, he enters the orphanage. At thirteen, an older woman seduces him multiple times. These experiences make Polack a tough, courageous soldier in the Army.
Oscar Ridges is extremely Christian. He assures Wyman, who refers to him as “the preacher,” that “The Lord’ll keep me from shooting a Christian”. Despite his Christian beliefs, Ridges befriends Goldstein as his buddy. This friendship between a Jew and Christian shows that the war brought men of different backgrounds together.
Buddy Wyman does not play a major role within the novel. He dreams of becoming a war hero in order to support his mother and himself.
Steven Minetta is twenty years old and was known as the “best dresser on the block” when he was growing up. He is eventually wounded but then returns to the platoon. At the conclusion of the novel, Minetta feels anger towards power figures and hopes to “expose the goddam Army.”
Throughout the novel, Mailer dwells on many themes which reappear in his later essays and novels. One of these themes is the dehumanization of soldiers. The soldiers are continuously referred to as machines within the novel. At one point, Mailer describes this dehumanization stating, “When a man was harnessed into a pack and web belt and carried a rifle and two bandoliers and several grenades, a bayonet and a helmet, he felt as if he had a tourniquet over both shoulders and across his chest. It was hard to breathe and his limbs kept falling asleep.” Thus, in this instance, the soldier is losing grasp of his bodily functions and simply going through the motions of being a “soldier”.
Another theme, brotherhood, is a positive feature of war. In feeling that they may not make it out alive, the soldiers develop strong friendships which are not relatable to people at home. Croft expresses his feelings of brotherhood and tells his comrades, “You’re all good guys. You’re all chicken, and you’re all yellow, but you’re good guys. They ain’t a goddam thing wrong with you.” This idea of brotherhood is again expressed within Part III when Brown, Goldstein, Ridges, and Stanley attempt to carry the wounded Wilson back to camp.
The theme of loneliness also reoccurs within the novel. Away from their family and friends at home, the soldiers are constantly lonely. The men in their ranks are of different social classes, races, and religions. Often, the men struggle finding commonalities between them. They long for women and deeper friendships. At one point, Roth wishes to have someone who he “could talk to seriously.” He realizes that he doesn’t know his own comrades very well, since everyone he had met when he initially entered the Army was either killed or reassigned somewhere else.
Not surprisingly, death and the fear of dying also invade the war novel. The men are faced with unexpected deaths from Hennessey to Gallagher’s wife to Hearn. It is clear that death surrounds them. Cummings, having been surrounded by Army deaths the majority of his career, still never warms to the smell of dead corpses. Roth, like the other soldiers, realizes that he or one of his comrades could be killed any minute. Like Hennessey or Hearn, death is a gunshot away.
A larger theme, power, is best exemplified through General Cummings himself. Cummings compares himself to the “chief monk” and God throughout the book. He also openly supports the class system within the military, ordering Hearn that as an officer he must accept the “emotional prejudices of his class.” People of higher ranks like Hearn and Cummings, after all, enjoy a better quality of life than the other foot soldiers. They sleep in larger staterooms while the soldiers share small rooms and are jammed into cots. This power system is reinforced within the missions themselves. After Hearn dies, Croft takes over leading the platoon up the mountain. While the other soldiers clearly want to stop and give up, they continue hiking the mountain simply because their authority figure, Croft, demands that they not give up. Thus, this is another instance where the undemocratic nature of the Army is apparent.
Misogyny also occurs within the novel. Like Mailer’s other works, The Naked and the Dead constantly portrays women as sexual objects who are unequal to men. Many men, especially Brown, fear that their wives are cheating on them while they fight in the war. This only causes them to have more hatred towards women. Brown tells Stanley that if he finds out his wife has cheated on him, he will beat her then throw her out. Later, in the Chorus “Women,” Polack insists that “there ain’t a fuggin woman is any good” and Brown agrees. Women are especially emphasized within Time Machine segments. Here the men’s romantic relationships and sexual experiences are described in detail. In many of the Time Machines, such as Martinez, women are portrayed as simply sexual objects.
Before he left for basic training, Mailer was certain that he could write “THE war novel” based on his and others’ experiences as soldiers in World War II. After Mailer returned home from the war, he moved to France with his first wife, Beatrice, where he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. Here, in just fifteen months, Mailer wrote his war novel as noted in Mailer's introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of his novel.
Mailer described that his writing inspiration came from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy. While writing, Mailer often read “from Anna Karenina most mornings before he commenced his own work.” Mailer believed that Tolstoy enabled him to bring compassion to his pages. Tolstoy taught him that “compassion is valueless without severity.” Mailer was convinced that he brought this compassion to The Naked and the Dead, and it is what enabled a twenty-five-year-old to write an incredible war novel. Throughout his writing process, Mailer explained that he “used to write twenty-five pages of first draft a week,” which allowed his novel to flow from page to page. Mailer felt that this novel was the easiest for him to write, as he finished it quickly and passionately. Mailer later stated that “Part of me thought it was possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace.” Yet, even with the author’s own praises, he acknowledged his own writing immaturity within the novel. Mailer insisted that “it was sloppily written in many parts (the words came too quickly and too easily) and there was hardly a noun in any sentence that was not holding hands with the nearest and most commonly available adjective.” However, despite this criticism, Mailer believed that it deserved to be a best seller. It was written with vigor and contained acute descriptiveness which enabled readers to imagine what World War II was really like. Mailer admitted that he still returned to The Naked and the Dead occasionally and reread passages because they gave him hope “for all of us.”
The publishers of The Naked and the Dead persuaded Mailer to use the euphemism "fug" in lieu of "fuck" in his novel. Mailer's version of a subsequent incident follows:
The word has been a source of great embarrassment to me over the years because, you know, Tallulah Bankhead's press agent, many years ago, got a story in the papers which went..."Oh, hello, you're Norman Mailer," said Tallulah Bankhead allegedly, "You're the young man that doesn't know how to spell..." You know, the four-letter word was indicated with all sorts of asterisks.
The rock band The Fugs took their name from this word.
The incident is mentioned in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines. Colin Singleton tells Lindsey Lee Wells about how he likes to read literary criticism after reading a book. Colin says that the publisher indicated that no one in 1948 would buy The Naked and the Dead "'because it contains even more F-bombs than it does Regular Bombs.' So Norman Mailer, as a kind of fug-you to the publisher, went through his 872-page book and changed every last F-word to 'fug.'"
In 1948, at the age of twenty-five, Mailer published The Naked and the Dead which was extremely successful. The book sold 200,000 copies in its first three months and remained on the New York Times best seller list for 62 weeks. Later, Modern Library named The Naked and the Dead one of the top hundred novels in the English language.
Publisher Bennett Cerf declared in 1948 "only three novels published since the first of the year that were worth reading ... Cry, the Beloved Country, The Ides of March, and The Naked and the Dead."
However, Gore Vidal wrote:
My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since… I do recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain… Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work.